Monthly Archives: October 2015

visual notes: the new method of retention?

‘visual notes: the new method of retention?’ is the third installment of a six part series of posts for a project titled: ‘Say Something’ as a part of my Writing & Research class I am taking as a part of my graduate studies in the interior design program at University of Central Oklahoma. The series explores the importance of drawing and hand graphics within the realm of design – its relevance and how why it should still maintain its place as a foundational skill-set in designers in a predominantly digital world.

The concept of visual note taking has existed for quite some time, despite the fact that people may not know how to apply it to their daily lives. Youtube contains thousands of visual notes packaged into movies – add campaigns, persuasive arguments, and informational topics – all illustrated by a hand drawing pictures of the words in a time lapse format. This form of visual interpretation is not just limited to commercial use. Evidence continually points to the positive correlation between the ‘hand to mind’ connection in the form of visualizing information. As a result, people are now beginning to tout this form of note taking as a replacement for the conventional method: scribble everything down as quickly as possible. Visual note taking increases the ability to retain information, making it a more effective form of synthesizing ideas compared to written or oral communication.

According to a study by molecular biologist, John Medina, “visions trumps all senses” as the most powerful method of retaining information. Many people consider themselves ‘visual thinkers’ by nature. However, Medinas’ study suggests that everyone might fit into this category. He states, “Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.” According to his figures, immediate recall of information varies by a margin of 10% when comparing words to images.

Medinas’ study is general, not necessarily related specifically to note taking, but how the senses actually function within the human body. His study does not observe the effects of visual elements on retention when they are re-enforced by drawing instead of writing. Enter the ‘MIND MAP’. Educators in particular are finding ways to incorporate this practice into their classrooms, citing more engagement and better retention among students. Organizing notes in a visual form is also referred to as ‘mind mapping’. Mind mapping is a form of visual note taking in which images are combined with written words. These images and words organize thoughts or ideas into a graphic composition that is easier for the author to comprehend, retain, and recall after the fact.

According to, these visual charts consist of five basic characteristics: the main idea – condensed into a single image, the main themes of that idea radiating from the central image, a word that encapsulates a related idea is associated with each branch, less related topics are represented by “twigs” connected to each branch, and lastly, all the branches form a structure, connected by nodes [ideas]. This form of ‘radiant’ thinking allows the author to organize thoughts related to the central idea, making the information easier to recall – and remember long after the lecture is over. Antonio Ontoria Peña, Juan Manuel Muñoz González and Ana Molina Rubio who are professors from the Faculty of Education at the University of Cordoba, Spain studied the learning abilities of 140 students through the use of mind mapping between the years of 2006 and 2008. Over the course of the study, 1,200 individual mind maps were created, as well as 125 team maps. The researchers concluded that through the practice of visual note taking, the students improved in two major categories: cognitive abilities and social abilities. According to the study, “the authors distinguish comprehension, information organization and capacity of reflection”. Their increased ability to synthesize that information had a positive impact on self esteem, which allowed for more confident oral communication of ideas.

Visual interpretation of ideas obviously has massive implications for the way educators impart information to their students. However, this concept transcends all fields. Specifically related to design, mind mapping could hold a prominent place within the conceptual process, and moreover, effectively communicate ideas to potential clients. Beyond synthesis of concepts, this form of note taking reinforces the ‘hand to mind’ connection that directly contributes to success as a designer. The ability to visually communicate thoughts in a client presentation carries just as many positive implications compared to a student taking notes on a lecture in a classroom, according to the results of the studies.

“Mind Maps” are a rigid form of visual note taking, adhering to the five characteristics. However, any sort of visual framework that aids in retention can be successful. “Doodle Notes” are another form of visual information synthesis that prove highly effective in terms of author retention. As people conduct more studies on this method, it can become the preferred method for digesting information. In turn, the practice of visual note taking will create more confident, knowledgable recipient, more capable of synthesizing and communicating those ideas.

perspectives on drawing: Alvaro Siza Vieira

‘perspectives on drawing: Alvaro Siza Vieira’ is the second installment of a six part series of posts for a project titled: ‘Say Something’ as a part of my Writing & Research class I am taking as a part of my graduate studies in the interior design program at University of Central Oklahoma. The series explores the importance of drawing and hand graphics within the realm of design – its relevance and how why it should still maintain its place as a foundational skill-set in designers in a predominantly digital world.

Álvaro Siza Vieira is a Portuguese architect. He graduated from the school of architecture at the University of Porto, and has spent time in the United States as a visiting professor at the Harvard School of Design, the University of Pennsylvania, among many others. As a professional, he established a practice in Portugal, where the majority of his built work is located. However, he also has projects all over the world. Vieira is a highly celebrated designer, winning an endless list of prizes and awards.

His buildings are complex, detailed spaces. They, like any other inhabitable place, require a heavy amount of data analysis to be constructed – and constructed well. This complex process is obviously streamlined by the presence of the computer. Years ago, he and his team likely did the majority of this work by hand. However, his practice to day is like any other. Final, packaged drawings and renderings are produced in a digital format. It makes sense. But despite the technological advances, Vieira still champions the practice of drawing and its essential role in the mind to hand connection.

Like so many designers, he began his career as an artist. Sculpture was his media of choice. He planned on attending college for art. But his desired pursuits were not supported by his family. His father, an engineer, especially did not appreciate why his son wanted to live “an artist life”. With pressure mounting from his family, he eventually attended the University of Porto, where he achieved a degree in architecture. As an architect, he never traded his ability to draw in an artistic manner for his ability to draw in a technical manner. In fact, he learned to fuse drawing with his new set of skills to further enhance his design process and to develop his ideas on a much deeper level.

In an interview with Francisco Granero, Vieira discusses his process and how drawing is inherent  to the success of his work. One exchange in particular resonated with the premise that these skills are still important to modern designers. Granero asks, “Apart from your vital need to a constant dedication to drawing, in what aspect do you think that drawing and the drawing exercise could have had an influence in your living, your way of life, your style in facing life, and in building up your ideas?”. Vieira responds: “Drawing, in my life as an architect, gives access to my work.” In his practice, drawings are a way for ‘people to learn to see’. Related to design, this means the process by which your ideas were formed – the evolution, the solutions.

In general, it allows people to process the solution within a broader context, say in relation to potential surroundings. Vieira is an avid traveler, and constantly sketches everything that surrounds him. He fuses these contextual references with his designs. He also animates his drawings with ‘personalities’, people – both real and imaginary. He says he introduces these human figures to control the scale of his design – a concept that is not limited to the field of architecture. It goes without saying this is a practice meant for a pencil and paper. And as mentioned in the previous post in this series, this process allows one to draw over other solutions, potentially creating new forms, patterns, and ideas. Drawing is something Vieira does all the time. He feels that beyond problem solving, studies of the human form within his spaces reinforce the fact that humans are at the center of architecture. This is a practice he enforces in his own office as a way to form the design process, citing that ‘instruments serve thought’ rather than replacing thoughts, specifically through the use of hand drawing.

image credit: Alvaro Siza Vieira

image credit: Alvaro Siza Vieira

Vieira has a way of capturing his surroundings and incorporating those thoughts directly into his designs. His drawing ability is masterful in the way he captures realism and perspective. His ability to draw in such away is almost as celebrated as his architecture. Designers, especially design students might look at his sketches and feel intimidated by their technical strength. How can you incorporate this practice into your process? Again, as mentioned in the inaugural post of this series – you don’t have to be good at drawing. Although Vieira is obviously very skilled, his drawings are quite loose and bordering on scribbly. However, as with anything, practicing a skill often leads to improvement. Between all the work, conferences, meetings, awards ceremonies, and life, Vieira makes time to draw. He makes time within his process to include this very important form of visual interpretation. When asked by the interviewer if he ‘lived for drawing or draws for a living’, he replied “I do not recognize drawing as a reason to live by itself, but it definitely helps come people in their lives. Drawing is a way of spiritual liberation and of direct relation with thinking, and its opening to the external world.” That constant nurturing of the connection between your head and your hand trains your eyes to see solutions more clearly – as well as tie designs back to a broader contextual concept.

Vieira is now 82 years of age. He still practices. He still draws. His drawings are often an expression of his surrounding world. But he reminds us that these seemingly unconnected scribblings are a way to bolster his skills as a critical thinker. “Drawing it is more a help to thinking to solve the design problems, and also a motor to find the solving formulas to establish the norms, and to study them”. He is part of a generation that still values this practice as a part of the design process. Hopefully, through the teachings of Alvaro a new generation of designers will make time in their ritual to include drawing as a way to think, alongside the computer.

mind to hand to paper.

‘You Are What You Draw: A Manifesto’ is the first installment of a six part series of posts for a project titled: ‘Say Something’ as a part of my Writing & Research class I am taking as a part of my graduate studies in the interior design program at University of Central Oklahoma. The series explores the importance of drawing and hand graphics within the realm of design – its relevance and how why it should still maintain its place as a foundational skill-set in designers in a predominantly digital world. 


imagecredit: Roger Penwil

image credit: Roger Penwill

The art of drawing has largely been declared ‘dead’ by many of my elders, contemporaries, and piers within the broad profession of design. We all decry the flashy software used by our students and emerging professionals – fearing what we have yet to understand. Todays’ young designers have a connection from their brain to their computer. They are comfortable conceptualizing on their screens, working quickly – and as a result, are convinced that their first idea is their best [only] idea. They see drawing as an archaic practice – an exercise in futility, as opposed to a skill that is imperative to a successful design effort. For my students, drawing was a forced march that was ‘for their own good’ and something they ‘would thank me for later’. But, over the years, I’ve come to understand that preserving this lost art is all in the way we integrate it into their consciousness. “Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design”, says Michael Graves, an architect and partner at Michael Graves Architecture & Design. When we think about the hand to mind connection in this manner, drawing is given potentially immortal existence within the field of design. Drawing is a vehicle through which you explore the design process rather than the culmination of your work in a completed concept, and therefore can never truly be eliminated in the process of creation.

I am a landscape designer who cut her teeth on the cusp of paste-up lettering and AutoCAD. As a result, I understand the advantages of working on a computer as opposed to generating everything by hand. Changing plan elements in AutoCAD is a matter of several clicks. Changing hand drawn plans is a completely different ballgame. Changes could take hours or even require trashing your plan and starting over. In that regard, one can see the obvious benefits. Production is streamlined, business is made more efficient. In addition to operational benefits, computers also allow us to store massive amounts of information within our designs. A program like Revit, for example, keeps track of complex building systems. It calculates square footages, pressures for HVAC systems, and even stores an extensive library of materials. The amount of data we can store within plans is nothing short of astounding. Computers afford us flexibility and latitude that were otherwise not possible prior to their existence. These amazing machines can complete every part of the design process – from sketching preliminary ideas to the creation of large plan sets and renderings. However, despite all of the advanced technology, computers still lack the capability to facilitate the mind to hand connection.

So how do we present drawing in such a way that it’s an unavoidable, and dare I say, enjoyable exercise within the design process? Michael Graves offers further insight into how. He lumps drawing into three different categories: Referential Sketch, Prepatory Study, and Definitive Drawing. The final type – definitive, is the drawing in its final form. It is highly refined and is most often made on the computer, as are most polished graphics. But the other two types are essential to our conceptual design process in terms of hand to mind connection.

As their names might suggest, each of these drawing types has a specific purpose. The referential sketch is often completed in the very beginning. These drawings may be fragments of a broader idea. As Graves says, “it might not be a drawing that relates to a building or any time in history.” It doesn’t necessarily represent reality – such as loose bubble diagrams or form studies. It is a reminder of why you were fixated on that idea in the first place. That visceral connection between your hand and the memory of that idea cannot be replicated by a computer. It is the repetitive doodling of these fragments that evolves into the next phase of the process: prepatory study.

Prepatory study refers to that messy progression of scribble that eventually emerges as a design. For me, it’s layering translucent [trash] paper over and over again until I arrive at my solution. At times, I will pile up in excess of twenty pages of trash with scribbles, notes, doodles, you name it. Most designers will tell you this part, the build up to what we call the ‘schematic’ phase, is their favorite. It’s messy and a little furious at times. And it’s a process that cannot be replicated by designing on a computer. The wonderful thing about drawing in this prepatory stage is that amongst these layers of trash, you can see the evolution of your idea – what worked, what didn’t work. You can see different forms and how they interact with the layers of paper above and below. Although one can duplicate floor plans, create other options, within the digital interface of a computer, the process doesn’t compare to one where those changes can be seen on top of each other. Once more, the repetition reinforces that connection from mind to paper, which in turn, strengthens the idea.

Categorizing the types helps identify their place in the design process. But one last element that can help determine their effectiveness is drawing ability. It can be inferred that with the advent of the computer, drawing as a skill is not a necessary pre-requisite to become a designer. Being that most designers are not always trained to draw, it can be a daunting task. But, you don’t have to be good at drawing to indulge referential and prepatory drawing. These quick studies or concepts are simply to get the ideas out of your head and onto the paper. The goal is to create a visual record of your ideas to reference as you create the concept. Completing this process on a computer is often one-dimensional as it allows you to draw within perimeters or constraints. Your mouse only draws according to the commands it has available. Contrast this with your hand, where you can draw anything and abandon the limits of the paper. Often these stray marks or mistakes open unexpected possibilities for design solutions. Regardless of the skill as an artist, this process allows a designer to see their ideas in a way that cannot be realized on a screen.

 As a general rule, a designer should never pigeonhole themselves into one skill set. Designers must be well-versed in both worlds. Although drawing is a foundation for good design, computers often take those efforts to the next level – refining, quantifying, and polishing the final product. However, when we take the conceptual process out of the computer, and present it as an informal way to catalogue ideas, the two skill sets combine to create a more effective design concept. Because the truth is, anybody can learn to use a computer. However, the ability to visually communicate ideas through the hand to mind connection is what sets a thoughtful, profound designer from all of the rest.